My long, long conversation with a Twitter critic

You’ll need to read on to find out who “Alan” is, and why I am making a challenge to him, but first: the challenge…

My challenge to “Alan”

If he’ll explain clearly how he thinks I’m supposed to be using Twitter and for what reason, once we get his rules and reasons clarified I’ll make @TweetSmarter follow his rules for some portion of a month. I believe if he would just actually discuss how he thinks things should be done and why with me, instead of just lobbing complaints and disappearing, somewhere in the “whats” and “whys” some clearer understanding can come of this.

What we do now

A brief story…

When my wife and I abandoned our previous Twitter account (with Twitter’s help, at their suggestion), nearly 80,000 people followed the dead account…and over 31,000 were still following it eight months later. In other words, I built an account that even after it was DEAD got nearly 80,000 followers!

So you can see why I believe in quality over tactics as the best way to build a Twitter account: people follow an account with a good reputation even after it stops being active. You don’t need to be following users to be getting more followers.

As @TweetSmarter on Twitter, we engage with thousands of users every year, answering questions for them when they have Twitter problems, and providing thousands of links to Twitter “how to” material each year. The links we share get clicked as much as 600,000 times a month, and some have been retweeted tens of thousands of times. We follow thousands of users a year for a wide variety of reasons, but first and foremost to find real users we can engage on the topic of how to user Twitter well.

Feedback is critical

I make big and small changes in what I do in response to feedback all the time, and regularly explain and write extensively about how and why I use a variety of tools and strategies to find people to connect with. Whether feedback comes in the form of criticism, questions or praise, I welcome all of it. Many of what I consider my personal best practices have been honed in response to feedback. But, some people are harder to understand than others…

When everything you do is public, some people will take exception.

This is where “Alan” comes in. (Since he never provides a link or username when he comments here on this blog, I don’t know his real name.)

My first contact with Alan was his comment on the “Who is TweetSmarter” post the afternoon of August 8, 2010:

“Since your username was changed you guys have been pretty aggressive in following/unfollowing other Twitter users. Isn’t this the type of behavior that Twitter has warned about: “We monitor all accounts for aggressive following and follow churn (repeatedly following and un-following large numbers of other users).”

I understand that you’re probably disappointed that your organic growth stopped after the name change, but juicing your follower numbers via a “pump and dump” strategy seems beneath you. Is there another explaination for the activity that we see via a 3 month picture of follower/following stats on TwitterCounter? Thanks.”

Seemed like a good question to me, and I was happy to explain. I shared how our account had been split into an inactive account (@Twitter_Tips) and an active one (@TweetSmarter) and how I was following people who were following @Twitter_Tips in the expectation that they were trying to find @TweetSmarter, but that I had given that up after learning that they were by-and-large not very engaged accounts. I also showed follow data on the name change here, after writing about the name change.

Alan’s follow-up comment the next day was:

“Thanks for your thorough explanation – much appreciated.”

I next heard from Alan, again commenting about Twitter follow data, in early February, 2011. This was when my wife spent our free time over several weeks using ManageFlitter to semi-manually unfollow inactive accounts. It was a long, exhausting task! (Twitter’s automation rules allow no automated unfollowing, so it couldn’t be done any other way.) Alan wrote that it looked like we had followed a bunch of people, then unfollowed them all, and he was livid about it.

Unfollowing inactive accounts

I explained that you can’t see from looking at a Twitter follow chart who is being followed or unfollowed or why (follow 1000 and unfollow 1000 on the same day and the chart simply shows zero change), but then patiently pointed out a number of clues that made it pretty clear we were just unfollowing a couple years’ worth of inactive accounts. Alan wasn’t listening. Two days later, he followed up with more angry criticism:

“This is the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen. Your pump and dump tactics are so obvious to see and fly in the face on this post. Shame on you.…you PROACTIVELY followed [many] Twitter accounts, and then within the next week dumped nearly [all] of them.”

I then explained further, pointing out again how easy it was to see we hadn’t unfollowed any active accounts, and wrote in more details about how Twitter defines aggressive follow churn in response to his accusations. Alan responded:

“Your backtracking and rambling, roundabout attempts to explain and justify your actions isn’t helping your case. Maybe the noobs and rubes will buy it, but nobody else will….As I mentioned earlier, I think you’re providing a nice service for lots of folks. Don’t erode your brand with this nonsense.”

The chart he was complaining about is still recent enough (June/July 2011) that you can see most of our unfollowing activity on it here. I think it’s pretty obvious just by looking at it without any further explanation that it was a one-time unfollowing deal that took us several weeks to accomplish manually. And I explained how to search to confirm that we weren’t unfollowing active users. But…sigh…Alan wasn’t listening. He emphasized:

I’ve seen you guys follow and then [unfollow many accounts] several times before. This is not an isolated incident, but the magnitude of the dump is disturbing and suspicious.

If you check our TwitterCounter chart at present, you’ll see what looks like about 120 days of uninterrupted following. I didn’t stop unfollowing some users in response to Alan’s complaints. Sarah and I stopped doing it in part because it’s so much work! Since many more folks follow @TweetSmarter than we could ever follow back, there is little reason for us to unfollow many users that often. I used to take a week or so maybe four times a year to unfollow folks (which Alan refers to) but it’s a lot of work for little gain—mostly it discourages folks from hoping we’ll autofollow them back so they can unfollow us.

(Obviously, since at any one time there are as many as 80,000 more people following @TweetSmarter than we are following, it’s different for us than for accounts that may be unable to follow new people if they don’t unfollow some that don’t follow them back.)

Following people to find engaged users

He also complained more generally that we followed people who weren’t already following us. I explained how @TweetSmarter follows accounts to find people who need help or who give help. I repeatedly pointed out that followers didn’t matter unless people engaged one another, and that our goal was finding people to connect with. Major influence services such as Klout, for example, do NOT measure followers, they ONLY measure engagement. As you can imagine, helping people who tell others about our service is why @TweetSmarter is so popular/influential with real users, as measured by things like Klout, PeerIndex, TweetLevel, etc.

But the fact that @TweetSmarter also gained followers who didn’t engage bothered Alan greatly, and he was upset that I didn’t talk about it more. He seemed to say that since we did good things (responded to users, provided help, found and shared high-quality content) we shouldn’t talk about those things if we also followed a lot of people. Instead, I write about both here on this blog. In fact, to the boredom of many, there is very little that I don’t write about here ;)

And frankly, I don’t think anyone cares, give or take 100,000, how many followers @TweetSmarter has. We’ve got over 270,000 as I write this. If you first heard of @TweetSmarter, would it matter to you if we had 170 or 270 or 370 thousand followers? I doubt it! These are numbers I think best described as “more than enough.” So—who really cares?

Does Alan think that doing “quality” things means it’s bad to do “quantity” things?  I pointed him to articles explaining how and why I follow people on Twitter from the @TweetSmarter account, later also writing about how it’s not about how many people you follow on Twitter, but how many you engage with.

I didn’t hear from “Alan” for awhile after that, but on then on April 9 he tweeted from an anonymous account:

“Back to your old tricks – again? Following 20K people last month after unfollowing 70K since Jan 1. #Hypocrites #Pathetic”

He still wasn’t accepting that we had unfollowed years worth of old, inactive accounts—or he was just trying to make his statement in whatever way would make us look bad. He followed up on this theme on June 23, 2011, when I posted a slide show created by Brandon Whalen and team I called “Advanced techniques to grow your Twitter account.” In a comment on that post, he pointed out that I was still following more users than were following me back. And he was still hopping mad that I wasn’t talking about it enough, and wanted me to write about it more. But what more was there to say? I’d written hundreds of words across several posts explaining in detail how and why we followed people. What did he really want? I just can’t quite figure it out.

So, this time I tried something different…

I asked Alan to define specifically how I was supposed to be using Twitter. I also noted “You know I’ve never deleted any of your comments, so…go for it! Looking forward to hearing from you again!” Alan got back to me. He repeated what he thought was my “hypocrisy” and closed with:

I’m glad that it works for you. I wont be back again.

In other words, he declined to try to make things clear, he declined to have a conversation, he declined to try to teach or learn anything. I was disappointed.

While he never said so explicitly, “Alan” seemed to feel that there can never be good reasons for following many people before they follow you. What seems to anger him in particular is that we engage with thousands of different people each year, and talk about how and why we do that, but that since our account gains so many followers each year, we should be talking more about how we follow people instead. Specifically, Alan noted

What I object to is the hypocrisy of using the pre-emptive follow tactic while continually expounding on variations of the “how to earn your following” theme.

Alan seemingly just didn’t get it. Engagement is what matters on Twitter. Call it earning your reputation or whatever you like. Since I am transparent about what I do on Twitter, Alan could only complain that even though I talked about following and how I do it, by talking about engagement and service to others, I wasn’t talking about following enough.

Why some users hide what they are doing

During the months “Alan” and I had our conversation, I noticed more and more top users changing their following patterns, but not their results. It was clear some users had begun using more sophisticated software to smooth out bumps in their follow/unfollow patterns to avoid having to have conversations with users like Alan. I’ve written about this in detail at “How users break Twitter’s following rules and get away with it.”

But, I must admit, it’s really tiring engaging with critics like “Alan.” If Twitter changed their rules to let me automate following and unfollowing to make it harder for folks to see what we’re doing and complain about it, I might. People who complain, repeat themselves, seem to fail to listen or explain clearly, and then disconnect rather than engage wear me out sometimes :(


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